Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Are Those Jesus's Bones?

No, but they may be

Yehoshua ben Yosef's

There has been another spiritual tempest in the secular tea-cup brewing over the anouncment that a set of ossuaries dug up some years ago in the middle east may (or may not) contain the bones and ashes of Jesus of Nazareth, his mother Mary, his brother James, his wife Mary of Magdala, and their son.

For Protestants, the possibility that Jesus had a brother is no big deal. It is well known that the author of the Epistle of James was referred to as the brother of Jesus. For at least some Roman Catholics, and possibly for Greek and Coptic Orthodox Christians, it could be a problem. Official teaching of the Roman church is that Joseph lived a chaste life with Mary, so that her womb would never be devoted to a lesser purpose than it had already served. There are of course references in the gospels to "my mother and my brothers." One explanation, by no means a certain one, is that in many middle eastern cultures, to this day, various degrees of cousins are commonly referred to as brothers and sisters.

The possibility that Jesus married and had a son is not critical either, although most Christians would find it unsettling. In the most orthodox Christian doctrine, Jesus became "fully human." It is by no means closed that he might have had a wife or son. If he did, they were of no significance to the writers of the gospels. The early Christian community did not have questions of succession which plagued the early Muslim community, leading to splits between Shia and Sunni. There was never a claim that blood relatives, let alone descendants, of Jesus had a special right to lead. Also, Christianity did not spread by establishing a new empire, such as the Caliphate, but among the lower classes of a well-established empire.

But the suggestion that Jesus's bones remain on earth certainly pose a question about the Resurrection. And Christianity is nothing if not a ressurection faith. The Nativity pales by comparison.

It appears that nobody is asking what may be the most pertinent question:

Suppose there were detailed, exact, comprehensive, irrefutable scientific PROOF that these bones are indeed the bones of Jesus, Mary, Mary, Jesus's son by Mary, etc. etc. etc.

(At present, there is no such proof. There is only interesting speculation about the possible reading of some inscriptions, and what they may or may not mean. Remember the similar case of the ossuary alleged to contain the bones of Jesus's brother James? The inscription turned out to be a very clever and well-done forgery by a modern antiquities dealer, who hoped to increase the sale price of the item.)

But if there were proof:

  • Would you leave the church you currently belong to?

  • Would praise and worship cease to inspire you as they do now?

  • Would you feel cut off from God, lost and abandoned in an indifferent, morally neutral universe?

  • Would your prayer life wither and die, because after all, it had no point?

I would bet that for 99.99999999999% of current believers, the answer would be "No." After all, the current outcry comes, not from those who have detailed scientific evidence for a contrary position, but from people who are quite certain they know better regardless of the current state of the scientific evidence.

Few Christians of any variety, and fewer who have had a born-again experience, gave their lives to Jesus because they came to an intellectual understanding that "By golly, all the weight of scientific evidence shows that this man did indeed rise from the dead, approximately three diurnal cycles after his lifeless corpse was placed in a tomb with a big heavy rock rolled over the entrance. I guess that makes him worthy to be praised."

Christians become and remain Christians because "there's something about that name," because they have experienced that Jesus IS "the lover of my soul," because in their heart and soul, maybe even in their bones, they feel "holy is the Lord God Almighty," because the heart feels "strangely warm," because the weight of known sins falls away at the altar. Is anybody going to give that up because some bones in an urn have been conclusively identified as those of Jesus? Very unlikely.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in the introduction to The Screwtape Letters, that belief in the existence of devils, and of Satan as a fallen archangel, "is one of my opinions." If it were proven to be false, his Christian faith would not be shattered. It would be much more difficult, logically, to say that the Resurrection is "one of my opinions" and that if certain bones still on earth were proven to be those of Jesus Christ, my Christian faith would remain intact. But the truth is, most Christians would continue to believe, even if the proof that those are Jesus's bones were beyond any possible doubt. Those who do not believe might raise the level of mockery several notches, but believers would continue to believe.

At most, we might have to rethink what Jesus meant by the words he used, how well the words he really said have been conveyed to us through translations and interpretations and incomplete transcriptions and faded memories of the apostles. Most of all, we would have to ask ourselves, how much has our human reasoning, and human unreasoning, distorted the pure essence of the message and the salvation that Jesus brought into the world?

We all know that perverse and bloody crimes have been committed in the last 2000 years, in the name of Christianity, even in the name of Jesus. During World War I, the Wobblies sane a parody of "Onward Christian Soldiers" that included unfortunately accurate phrases like "let the gentle Jesus, bless your dynamite" and "slay your Christian neighbors, or by them be slain." Do we even understand, truly, what Jesus really meant to tell us? What we have is better than nothing, but how well do we really know Jesus? Are we so wrapped up in doctrines, and in our own certainty about physical events as we understand events in human experience, that we have missed the essential Truth?

Maybe not. This tempest in a teapot about some old bones may blow over like all those that came before it. But if we are unwilling to abandon our faith in the face of proven facts, or deny the possibility of physical evidence because we will not abandon our faith, only one truly honest course remains: we must examine how well we understand the foundations of our faith. Jesus said that his Kingdom is "not of this world." Why are we looking to events in the world, as the world knows them, to validate that Kingdom?

Sunday, March 04, 2007

What Abortion Campaign?

Crisis Pregnancy Centers are Roe v. Wade in action

(Also see Roe v. Wade Affirmed Again)

The February 26 (2007) issue of TIME magazine features a front-page introduction to The Abortion Campaign You Never Hear About: Crisis pregnancy centers are working to win over one woman at a time. But are they playing fair?

There is something missing from the premises of this article. What abortion "campaign" is TIME talking about?

"Crisis pregnancy centers" is a catch-all term for citizens who believe abortion is the wrong choice, reaching out to pregnant women, offering various levels of assistance and/or propaganda. The goal, obviously, is to influence the individual choice whether to carry the pregnancy to term, or seek an abortion. (Propaganda simply means to present information, selectively, with the intention of winning others over to a distinct viewpoint).

In First Amendment terms, crisis pregnancy centers are engaged in freedom of speech and freedom of association, not unlike Planned Parenthood. They just have a different viewpoint. Nothing better demonstrates the enduring wisdom of Roe v. Wade.

No decision by the United States Supreme Court has ever said, or even implied, that abortion is a good choice, the right choice, or a socially desirable choice. All that Roe v. Wade ever said is, the decision to carry or terminate a pregancy, particularly in the first trimester, is so initimate, involves so many medical and personal variables, that in the finest traditions of American constitutional law, the police powers of the state have no legitimate role.

If not one woman in American chose to have an abortion, it would take nothing from the validity of that ruling.

Most Americans fervently believe that we have a right to privacy, to be left alone by our government in personal decisions that are nobody's business but our own. We disagree about what is private and what is a matter of public concern, but we darn well want the government to stay out of anything we personally believe we can handle without bureaucratic meddling. Applying constitutional analysis developed by Justices Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Supreme Court has in may cases agreed, and restrained the legislative branches of government from intruding too deeply into our private lives. Roe v. Wade was one result of this vigilant defense of our cherished liberties.

It is well established that the choice legally belongs to the pregnant woman. There are many organizations dedicated to assisting women in exercising that choice. Some make medically proper abortions, in sterile surroundings, performed by qualified medical teams, available to woman who could not afford the procedure, or could not find any other doctor to perform it. There are also organizations dedicated to offering assistance with the economic and emotional costs of carrying a pregnancy to term, and raising a baby after delivery. Some organizations, offering various viewpoints, offer more rhetoric than substance. Some organizations distort the truth, offering dated or doubtful information.

That is what free speech and public advocacy are all about. Everyone gets a voice. Everyone gets to choose what voices each of us will listen to. Nobody has the right to coerce another person's choice. If someone is so zealous in their advocacy that they cross the line into criminal fraud, that can be prosecuted. If someone provides detailed, and false, medical information, that may reach the point of practicing medicine without a license. Short of that, it is not generally a criminal offense to lie to another person. The remedy is for competing viewpoints to vigorously provide more complete and accurate information.

The fruitless and destructive debate over legislative action, to restore criminal penalties for abortion, is fought on very different principles than freely offering information, advice and aid to women who have the undoubted right to choose. To assist a woman in delivering a healthy baby is a far cry from threatening her with several years in prison. The important different is that crisis pregnancy centers have to say "Please" rather than saying "We will place you under arrest and prosecute you."

It remains true that there are indeed two lives concerned with every pregnancy. The two are not equal at all points during pregnancy. The Supreme Court wisely left open that states may prohibit abortion in the third trimester, when the fetus is an almost fully developed baby who could survive outside the womb if necessary. The only thing the state may not do at that stage is mandate that a woman facing serious complications sacrifice or risk her own life to save her baby. (A woman may of course CHOOSE to do so.)But in the first trimester, medical technology does not yet exist which would allow a determined right-to-life advocate to tell a pregnant woman "If you won't carry that baby for the next seven months, if you won't endure the morning sickness, if you won't go through delivery, transplant that precious life into my womb and I will take it from here." And it is not yet a baby. It is a new life growing within the womb of another, not yet capable of independent existence.

Crisis pregnancy centers may offer and advocate. So may Planned Parenthood. The CHOICE belongs to the pregnant woman. No matter what viewpoint is offered, that is all Roe v. Wade in action.